Writing a College Application Essay
Do you remember the feeling you had when you first got behind the wheel of a car, attended a school dance, or voted in an election? This might be the same feeling you have as you look at a blank page of paper and wonder what you are going to write for your college application essay: nervousness. But there’s no need to fear. Like millions who came before us, writing your university personal statement is just a rite of passage that we’ve all had to experience. You don’t have to feel like you are the only person in the world to face that blank sheet. We’re here to help, and our mission is to find your voice. Don’t worry about what you think the admissions officer will want you to write. Write as an expression of who you are. Write as a product of finding your voice.
Understanding the Personal Statement
Imagine two students, Keith and Maria. Both have a 3.85 GPA, multiple AP classes, and a lengthy list of extracurricular activities. They look, at first, like similar candidates. But Maria writes about how she immigrated to the U.S. at age ten, taught herself how to code by age 15, and overcame financial barriers. Keith writes about how he got stuck on a roller-coaster at the carnival and learned the meaning of friendship. Now suddenly these are two very different applicants. That’s the power of the story.
Here’s an exercise to start your story. Set an alarm for ten minutes, take a sheet of paper, and write “I am.” From this beginning, write freely and without regard to grammar--write as if introducing yourself to a new friend. When you’re done, circle five phrases you feel are most significant to your identity. Ready for more? Now write a few sentences about:
- A favorite place from childhood
- The best day of your life
- The worst day of your life
- A random talent
- Something you believe in strongly
- A significant relationship
- The greatest obstacle you’ve overcome
- A time you’ve won
- What makes you smile
- Your favorite object or possession
- Significant leadership experience
What topics should you avoid?
- An essay about your accomplishments
- A sports injury
- A person you look up to
- Sexual content
- Illegal or illicit behavior
- The “party animal” essay
The Structure of the Admissions Essay
If you are familiar with the “five-paragraph essay” you know how to write a thesis and three supports, and write polished, careful prose. But the admissions essay is not the five-paragraph essay. Rather, you need to harness the power of the story to grab the reader’s attention and then to continue to write while holding it on. Why? It’s because stories engage, stories are relatable, stories are the most effective way to get a reader’s attention.
- Show, don’t tell.
- Use dialogue.
- Start with the “cinematic opening.”
- Build toward the climax.
Then, finish the essay by bringing it full circle. Just as the famous “Hero’s Journey” ends with the hero returning home, you can often return right back to where your essay started.
Fatal Flaws to Avoid
While there are many right ways to craft an essay, there are also quite a few wrong ways. Here are some common mistakes.
- Essay is vague or lacks substance. You didn’t answer the prompt, you don’t cite examples, you didn’t reveal feelings, or you simply repeated the same information.
- Essay overuses cliché words or phrases. “Time heals all wounds,” “thinking outside the box,” etc.
- The personal statement lacks structure. The aforementioned five-paragraph essay.
- Your essay isn’t really about you. A tribute to one’s grandmother, for example.
- Your essay simply repeats what is on your résumé. Your extracurricular activities are listed elsewhere on your application.
- The essay is tone-deaf. The tone is overly humorous, dry and cynical, or too confident. The essay has gimmicks or quirks.
Writing the Winning Introduction
Writing a vivid, compelling introduction “hooks” your reader and draws them in. How do you start? You can begin with the earliest (chronological) time you began the topic of your essay. You can avoid a thesis statement and think of the essay as a story. You can use vivid, descriptive language, bold imagery, an anecdote, dialogue, or an element of mystery. Most of the time, you should avoid a song, poem, or “extra creative” opening. It’s often also a bad idea to open with a famous quotation. Finally, there is no correct number of sentences to open with.
This is a time to think about displaying leadership. Famously, U.S. colleges and universities desire candidates who have displayed leadership talent. What is your most significant example?
Writing the Perfect Conclusion
The conclusion of the essay is an opportunity to close with a snap. If appropriate, it’s possible to refer back to the anecdote or description from your introduction. You can possibly end with dialogue or a vivid, “cinematic” conclusion. Show, don’t tell, and consider the conclusion a final opportunity to make an impression on the admissions officer.
Here are some don’ts: Don’t summarize your essay, don’t over-reflect, and don’t use cliché phrases, e.g. “I think,” “I learned,” or “the most important thing.”
The Personal Statement Editing Checklist
- Review your introduction. Does it grab the reader’s attention? Does it begin to tell a story?”
- Review the structure of the essay. Does the essay use transitions effectively? Does the story flow? Are the paragraphs in the right order?
- Review your conclusion. Is the ending strong and effective? Does it tie your story together in a manner that is memorable, yet concise?”
- Do you use a variety of sentence types?
- Are there grammatical or spelling errors?
- Is your verb tense consistent?
- Do you use a variety of different words?
- Do you follow the word count?
- Ask a person to provide feedback, but avoid having more than 2-3 people edit your essay. Having multiple people proofread your essay has the potential to provide conflicting feedback and can also dilute your voice. An essay can be “over-edited.”
Writing the “Why Us” Supplemental Essay
Some applications will ask you to submit one or more supplementary essays. One common type is the “Why Us” essay. This is an opportunity to focus on specific opportunities unavailable elsewhere, to show how your unique passions connect with the university’s offerings, or to include a specific professor’s name if it covers a special interest of yours or if you’ve read a book they’ve published. If you have a sincere interest in the geographic location of the university, you could include it if it’s connected to a true personal interest or passion of yours.
Writing the “Why This Major” Supplemental Essay
Some US programs (and all UK, for that matter) want you to explain your academic specialization as part of your application package. This is a great opportunity for you to demonstrate why you are a good match for the college of your choice. But some applicants draw a blank. Here’s what to do: tell the story of how your academic interest began. Start with a story from childhood if at all possible (e.g., at the age of six, I disassembled my family’s cuckoo clock; today, I’m applying for a civil engineering program). Learn more about your target school’s professors, research, and student-led clubs. If you have career and professional goals, tie them into an essay explaining your academic interest.
Writing the “Diversity” Supplemental Essay
The university sometimes asks “who are you,” “what makes you unique,” and “what communities do you belong to?” Your answer may include your culture, race, ethnicity, your gender identity and/or sexual orientation, your religion, your family’s socioeconomic status, your values and beliefs, your unique life experiences and/or disabilities, etc. You may at first think you won’t bring diversity, but even matters such as having lived abroad for years or being vegan can be unique aspects of your personal story. Are you an adoptee? Are you fluent in sign language, a musician, or are you from a military family? Your topic choices can be limitless--go for it!
Writing the “Quotation” Supplemental Essay
Although it is generally regarded as risky to open your college essays with a famous quotation (too many people do it), sometimes the college will turn the tables by sharing their own quotation and asking for your reflection or interpretation. The professional advice is to read the quote carefully, research the individual who wrote it, and use it as an opportunity to share more about yourself and why you would be a good fit at that particular school.
You are now entering the final stage of your college admissions essay. Re-read your essay carefully, taking note of mistakes such as “they’re/their/there,” “two/too/to,” “complement/compliment,” “effect/affect,” etc. Avoid conditional phrasing such as “probably,” “planned to,” “hope to,” and so on. Check your capitalization. More broadly, ask yourself if you have conveyed your message enough, whether you have told the story you need to convey this message, and if you have been as specific as you can be to make your story as strong as possible. Websites such as Grammarly can help you with issues such as these.